What Is Love in the Bible?
Many people in our world today don’t really understand love. We say, “I love ice cream,” meaning that we enjoy it a great deal. But we may also say, “I love John,” and mean pretty much the same thing – that John pleases or benefits us. That semantic confusion makes it easy to slip into a concept of love in which our focus is more on what we expect to get than on what we can give.
Part of the confusion arises because in English we use the single word “love” to cover a wide range of feelings and behavior. On the other hand, the Greek language, in which the New Testament was originally written, recognizes that to truly understand what love is all about, we need to make distinctions between different kinds of love.
In biblical Greek there are four different words, with four different meanings, that are translated into English as “love.”
1. Storge (“stor-gay”) Natural Affection
Storge grows out of familiarity and attachment rather than out of admiration for another person’s qualities. It embodies the instinctive affection that animals have for their young, and that human parents have for their offspring even before that child displays any pleasing personality characteristics.
C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, calls it the humblest and least discriminating of the loves because it doesn’t depend on the individuals involved having anything in common. Just being around someone for a long enough period of time can give rise to the natural affection that storge represents. For example, a husband and wife who have been together so long they are starting to look like one another often have strong ties of affection.
Storge appears in the Bible in two verses, Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:3. In both cases it is in its negative form, astorgos (the a- prefix signifies “not”), and is translated in the King James Version as “without natural affection.”
2. Phileo (“fi-lay-oh”) Friendship (Brotherly) Love
Phileo is an emotional love, based on strong bonds of friendship. It is the love we have for those with whom we share some important interest in common. The more we have in common, the greater the phileo bond between us. In other words, phileo is the love expressed between good friends, who love to share with one another their feelings, thoughts and attitudes about the things that really matter to them.
People who have a strong phileo bond between them share a level of intimacy that has nothing to do with the physical. That’s why “best friends” share secrets about themselves with one another that they would never reveal to anyone else. The Old Testament shows us a moving example of this type of love in the friendship between David and Jonathan.
Phileo, in one or another of its Greek forms, appears numerous times in the New Testament. One example is Romans 12:10, where it is translated as “brotherly love.”
That, by the way, is why Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love. It's not because it is such a loving place (sports fans there once booed Santa Claus), but because its name is derived from phileo.
A strong element of friendship between husband and wife is a necessary component of a good marriage relationship.
3. Eros (“eh-ross”) Romantic (Erotic) Love
Eros is what most people have in mind when they think of romance and being “in love.” It involves very strong emotions, and desires to unite with and physically possess the beloved.
C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, draws a distinction between eros and sex. He says that unlike mere physical desire, “eros longs for the emotional connection with the other person.” Dr. Ed Wheat amplifies that point in his book, Love Life for Every Married Couple. According to Dr. Wheat, “Genuine falling in love is a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical response to the actual character and total being of another who embodies attributes long sought and admired.” Given those definitions, it is clear that the sexual gymnastics so commonly portrayed on television and in movies have little to do with true romantic love.
Although the word eros does not appear in the Bible, erotic love certainly does! See, for example, 2 Samuel 13:1 (the NIV translation says “Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar”) and the entire book of Song of Solomon.
Obviously, eros should be an important factor in any healthy marriage. But, contrary to what many in our society think, it is not the foundation of the marriage relationship.
4. Agape (“ah-gah-pay”) Unconditional, God-like Love
Agape is unconditional love which seeks the good of the loved one and demands nothing in return. Translated as “charity” in the King James Version of the Bible, it is the love God has for us, and that we are commanded to have for Him and for our neighbor. We could call it the God kind of love.
According to 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” of the Bible, agape love is patient, kind, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, and not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs done to it, and thinks no evil of others. It always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.
Christians are to deal with every person with whom they come into even casual contact on the basis of this unconditional agape love that comes only from God. This love causes us to seek more to bless and serve others than to be blessed by them (Philippians 2:1-4).
Love in 1 Corinthians 13
Love and Marriage
What kind of love makes a strong marriage?
In a real sense, storge, phileo, and eros, are feelings that happen to us, rather than actions that are under our control. Certainly we can do our best to set up an environment in which these loves can arise and flourish. For example, a husband and wife have a responsibility to work hard to cultivate friendship and romance in their relationship. Still, they cannot simply command those feelings to come. Like all other emotions, the strength of these emotional loves may ebb and flow with circumstances. They are particularly affected by the response (or lack of response) from the object of our love. For example, in an emotionally healthy individual, romantic love will not survive for very long once it becomes clear that the object of that love will never reciprocate the sentiment.
For that reason, the feeling loves cannot by themselves carry a marriage through all the ups and downs and pressures life will bring. Storge, phileo, and eros should always be important elements in a marriage, and any of them may the factor that gets the relationship going in the first place. Many people have gotten married after realizing how much natural affection or friendship they shared. And of course, the excitement of “we’re in love!” has sent many a couple to the altar.
But when the excitement wears off (as it inevitably will), and when financial stress or the pressures of raising rebellious children take their toll, feelings of love can be submerged in resentment, bitterness, or just plain indifference toward one another. Any marriage relationship that remains dependent on how the spouses feel about one another will sooner or later be in trouble. Feelings change.
But agape doesn’t change. 1 Corinthians 13:8 puts it succinctly: “Love never fails.” That’s because agape is not about how we feel, but about how we decide to act.
Agape is a strong wall of protection surrounding the other loves
Unlike storge, phileo, and eros, agape is not based on feelings. Neither is it affected by how the other person responds. That’s why the Bible can realistically command us to love our enemies. This unconditional love depends only on the commitment, made and sustained through the power of the Holy Spirit, to consistently minister the love of God to another person.
That’s why I can love my wife even in the times when I don’t like her (it happens!). No matter how I am feeling about her at the moment, I can and must still make the decision that with the help of God I will treat her with kindness and consideration and concern for her wellbeing.
A marriage needs for storge, phileo, and eros to all be functioning with full force in order for that relationship to reach its full potential. But these loves, based on feelings and therefore subject to the impact events can have on our emotions, are vulnerable. It is agape that surrounds them like a high wall, and protects them from being destroyed by the pressures and stresses of changing circumstances.
1 Corinthians 13:13 gives a great summary of the preeminence of agape love:
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Has your love been mostly unconditional (agape), or is it affected by whether you are loved in return?
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin